Sean K. Cureton

Archive for June, 2015|Monthly archive page

Sex Ed Studies Masculinity & Virginity

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on June 27, 2015 at 4:05 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Sex Ed (2014)
Directed by Isaac Feder
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Harkening back to the pre-teen high jinks that made Richard Linklater’s The School of Rock such an unexpected comedy gem back in 2003, the sex comedy Sex Ed, written by the first time directing and writing pair of Isaac Feder and Bill Kennedy, comes as something of a shock at first glance, as it holds a certain warmth beneath the sheer vulgarity of its title and immediate subject matter. Starring a grown up, and especially rotund, Haley Joel Osment, the kid who once saw dead people is all grown up, and ready to make his mark molding the young minds of the next generation, like Jack Black in the aforementioned pre-teen comedy film to which Sex Ed holds more than a passing thematic association to. In Feder and Kennedy’s hands, the material that might have made for a light-hearted, romp, a la Fast Times at Ridgemont High, is given the space and breathing room to truly come into its own, with a story that evolves into one of the most nuanced and sentimentally poignant coming-of-age stories to come out of Hollywood in a long time. As a thirty-year-old virgin tasked with teaching sexual education to a class full of low income, underprivileged pre-teens, in an unspecified Barrio of sunny California, Osment’s Ed Cole is affectingly tragic, though the film never leaves much room for him to bemoan the persistent presence of his proverbial cherry, making his efforts in the classroom appear well intentioned, as opposed to feeling vindictively dictated. In Feder and Kennedy’s film, sexual experience is handled lightly and with an appropriate level of maturity, without becoming overtly puritanical in terms of narrative approach, leaving the decision of when, where, how, and with whom to have sex up to the viewer, which is as it should be, displaying a moral honesty heretofore unheard of in your typical sex comedy, farce, or satire.

Sex Ed, appropriately enough, starts it in a situation familiar to any recent college graduate in their 20s or 30s: in a dead end job, forced to cater to high school football stars undoubtedly getting more action between the sheets than you are. In establishing Osment as an everyman, Average Joe from the get go, Feder’s film is allowed to presumably hit the viewer where they live, the desperation and tragedy of Osment’s character apparent and readily sympathetic to more educated, young adult men then would probably openly admit it. In the film, Osment is forced to share an apartment with his close friend and near constant lothario roommate, who he more often than not walks in on mid-coitus with his exceedingly attractive girlfriend, which only serves to call attention to the fact that Osment, and the viewer by association, is still not getting any. Again, as is the case in the classroom, the disparity of sexual experience between Osment and his best friend and closest confidant is never a source of tension. Instead, it serves to bring them closer together, Osment’s predicament treated as nothing more than a temporary dry spell, which will soon be hurtled due to Osment’s underlying good will and respect of and for women.

Which brings the film, finally, around to Osment’s chief love interest in Kennedy’s script, who, instead of filling the misogynistic role of the manic-pixie-dream-girl, is a three-dimensional character with an agency that lies outside of any whims and desires which Osment may hold for her. Instead of playing right into Osment’s palm, the paramour in question, played by relatively unknown Chilean actress Lorenza Izzo, flirts with Ed cautiously, his position as her kid brother’s teacher never far out of mind, serving to ground their interactions with one another with just as much tension as there is melodramatic romance. When Izzo finally comes onto Osment, however, he can’t quiet seem to seal the deal, and is left alone with himself, where his forced to grapple with his own issues over his identity as a man, and what masculinity entails in terms of its socio-cultural associations and connotations. At first, there seems to be no easy answer to Osment’s dilemma, his status as a man negated by his inexperience with women and sex, making him out to be the man-child that society, and the comedy genre to which the film is a part, might readily cast him as so being. And yet, when Osment climactically confronts his landlady and local bartender (played with surprising subtlety and warmth by Parks and Recreation’s Retta) regarding his sexual inexperience once more in one of the film’s final scenes, he is presented with the advice and life lesson that being a man isn’t about having sex, but rather it is about knowing what you want, who you are, and going at and getting it, which is something that most publicly funded sexual education classes never teach you, but should.

In director Isaac Feder and screenwriter Bill Kennedy’s first feature film, both respectively and as a unit, the two novice filmmakers achieve something through the studio comedy genre that few writers and directors have ever achieved, even over the course of respective careers spanning entire decades. With Sex Ed, Haley Joel Osment lends a human warmth new found in the budding, former child actor, his turn as sexual education teacher Ed Cole heartwarming and believable due to his character’s own insecurities regarding his personal sexual experiences, or rather a lack thereof. Where such teen-sex comedy classics as Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Superbad treat sex as the be all cure for man-boyhood, with the term virgin supersaturated with negative connotations from both a personal and cultural perspective, Sex Ed is a breath of fresh air, offering a more nuanced and abstract approach to its stated subject matter. There isn’t a beat in the film that falls flat, every joke landing with equal parts incisive insight and withering social commentary, with Osment leading his pack of pre-teen students with just as much flair and panache as Jack Black did in his prime. Feder’s directorial debut is really something quiet special, in that it’s a sex comedy with the balls to say something potentially controversial and divisive, but thanks in large part to Kennedy’s screenwriting debut, the two pull off said ballsiness with an equal amount of sincerity that proves their overarching rhetorical argument not only right, but cathartic in terms of the film’s overriding socially conscious maturity, which is a true rarity in the contemporary studio comedy, and the chief reason why Sex Ed is such an indispensable gem of a film.

Sex Ed is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

Schizophrenic, Genius & Madness

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on June 13, 2015 at 11:40 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Love & Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad
3 out of 4 stars

In adapting the fractured life and mind of The Beach Boys’ front man and solo artist Brian Wilson, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy often struggles to stay on the right track narrative track, the film’s many subjective detours and digressions each individually fascinating in their own right, even if they don’t all lead to the same cathartic destination. Thankfully, the film does cohere, more or less, into a feature film that supports its own more clearly defined legal drama, even if the melodramatics of that particular narrative arc is only half of the film’s dramatic focus, and the less developed one at that. In Pohlad’s bio-pic, screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner explore the life and works of American pop musician Brian Wilson through two different versions of his character, the first being the young, budding musician who single handedly composed and recorded much of The Beach Boys eleventh studio album, Pet Sounds, before succumbing to mental illness and self-imposed isolation. The second comes in the form of a much older Wilson living in the 1980’s, a time when the real life musician was placed under court ordered 24-hour surveillance under his former therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy. The way in which the viewer is allowed to follow the path of an older Wilson struggling to come to terms with his mental illness, alongside longer, more aesthetically nuanced depictions of the recording sessions for Pet Sounds in the late 1960’s is masterfully accomplished, the juxtapositions between the two narrative arcs and characters at first glance entirely disparate, before the cohere into one man, the final depiction of Brian Wilson depicted in the film by Pohlad one equally informed by the artist’s genius and his inherent madness, the difference between the two tenuous at best.

Over the course of the half of the film that depicts and documents Wilson amidst creative fruition in the 1960’s, the young man is portrayed by actor Paul Dano, who lends a certain off-beat charm to the proceedings, which helps to offset some Wilson’s more extravagant eccentricities from becoming entirely unattractive. Starting in the film’s opening scene, in which Wilson is depicted late at night, positing the question to himself of what he would do if his genius and inspiration were to ever leave him, Dano is allowed the space to evoke a quiet, human fragility that we the audience already know will prove too timid to survive the aggression of his father, his family, and the realities of his own mental instability. In the glimpses offered of Wilson recording his magnum opus in the studio, sound designer Eugene Gearty emotively captures the layered textures of the original Beach Boys LP beautifully, the sounds which we hear in the studio simultaneously gorgeous and subjectively threatening, as they gradually begin to haunt Wilson’s unconscious with a malicious tenacity that proves aurally dissonant for the viewer. As the line between artistic inspiration and singular madness begins to blur for the young Brian Wilson, glimpses of a much older Wilson in the 1980’s, played by John Cusack, begin to intrude upon Dano’s performance, informing how the viewer sees Dano as Wilson, and vice versa, as the film tracks the trajectory of the fallout of the 1960’s visited upon Cusack’s portrayal of the same man in the 1980’s. In Pohlad’s film, Brian Wilson is neither the young artisit he once was, nor the older man living a beleaguered existence in the 1980’s, but an amalgamation of the two, the image that the viewer assembles from the film’s two distinct portrayals of the same character as important in capturing the essence of Brian Wilson as anything that the film is ever able to objectively quantify.

Over the course of the second half of the film, that in which John Cusack plays Brian Wilson under 24-hour surveillance in the 1980’s, Pohlad’s talent as a melodramatic storyteller come into play, the legal battle staged between Wilson’s former therapist and legal guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy, and his intended second wife, Melinda Ledbetter, one that is more immediately familiar to anyone who has watched even a single episode of Law & Order or CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Compared to the aesthetic mimicry of Wilson’s work and ethos on display in the film’s better half, Cusack’s estimable portrayal of a wounded older man is overshadowed by the film’s lazier machinations of a narrative perhaps better suited to an entire different film altogether. In the film’s depiction of Wilson’s struggles in the 1980’s, Elizabeth Banks portrays Wilson’s second wife Melinda Ledbetter with a ferocious energy and feminist mystique that is admirably achieved, but which distracts the film from its subjective focus entirely. In the scenes held between Banks and Dr. Eugene Landy, played a little too broadly by an otherwise welcome performance from Paul Giamatti, Cusack takes a back seat to a narrative that feels better suited to day time TV, Cusack’s performance more often than not encroached upon by a soap opera that comes inexplicably out of left field. While Cusack shines in the role of Brian Wilson, the light of his performance is muted by his supporting actors, Banks seemingly auditioning for a Melinda Ledbetter bio-pic of her own, and Giamatti chewing the otherwise clearly established scenery to bits with his own feral menace and intractable charisma.

In Bill Pohlad’s attempt at constructing a bio-pic featuring the life of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy succeeds in its evocation of the beauty of the mind of the artist, but struggles to overcome some of its more discordantly applied dramatic tropes. Paul Dano is an immensely empathetic object for our sympathies to attach themselves to, his portrayal of Wilson’s early genius turned to madness echoed in Cusack’s more subdued performance as an older, wiser artist in constant competition with the aforementioned capacity of his former self. However, the film often becomes distracted with its subsidiary characters, who are played so well by the film’s supporting cast that watching the film becomes an exercise in combating and deciphering narrative misdirection. Pohlad has an obvious aesthetic understanding and appreciation for the music of Brian Wilson, but what remains unclear in Love & Mercy is just what Pohlad wants to say about that affinity for his subject, the film at times flirting with intimate character study, but more often than not falling back on the sorts of narrative contrivance and cliché previously discussed at length. For better or worse, Love & Mercy is a somewhat schizophrenic study of a man with well documented mental deficiencies, the film’s dramaturgy effective in its ability to evoke intense sympathy and understanding in the viewer for Wilson’s plight across the span of twenty years, which is perhaps more than can be asked for, or expected, from the film’s established genre, which is pretty good, considering the alternatives.

Friendship Amid Terror In Jaws

In My Favorite Movies on June 6, 2015 at 12:08 pm
Jaws Poster

Universal Pictures

Jaws (1975)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Commercial Release: June 1st, 1975

Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut, Jaws, was initially released in theaters forty years ago, on June 1st, 1975, making the film four decades old, but just as viscerally immediate in its modern approach as ever. Ostensibly about a shark in much the same way that Herman Melville’s great epic Moby Dick is about a whale, Spielberg’s blockbuster summer thriller is about much more than the terror depicted most prominently on its theatrical poster. In Spielberg’s debut feature film, Roy Scheider plays police chief Martin Brody, a city dwelling officer of the law tasked with keeping the peace in the ironically named beachside hamlet of Amity Island from the film’s titular, subterranean, encroaching threat. Robert Shaw is the crusty sea captain and shark hunter Quint, whose street smarts serve him well in his own more personal desire to see the constant terror of the film put to rest. Lastly, Richard Dreyfuss represents the laws of science and reason as oceanographer Matt Hooper, whose text book answers and rational approach to the task at hand rein in the emotional core of Scheider, as well as tempering the unbridled, ego-driven enthusiasm of Shaw’s Quint; in short, they play the superego, the id, and the ego of one objective interpersonal drive.

More than the sum of its parts, Jaws is a film about friendship, as Murray Hamilton naively says of his small resort side town in a conversation delivered somewhere around the half way point of the film’s overarching narrative. Within the context of the formerly sited exchange, when Hamilton’s character delivers his homily on friendship to Scheider’s Brody, it is a lesson delivered while the two actors are comically placed in front of a billboard advertisement for Amity Island which has been defaced with a graffiti shark devouring the ad campaign’s depicted bathing beauty. The outward comedy visually established lends some slapstick humor to the proceeding on screen, imbuing the film’s cinematic universe with the humanity of adolescent high jinks and an innately human desire to make fun of that which we fear. This form of playful distraction is in keeping with the film’s thematic rendering of Amity Island as an insulated community, conservative to its core while being besieged on all sides by the changing social values of the times, most obviously represented in the opening sequence’s depiction of young college students around the proverbial camp fire. When one of these young innocents is taken by the shark, and Hamilton’s naïve optimism in the face of reality is made into parody before his character even arrives on screen, Spielberg’s Jaws becomes a film that is thematically concerned with the larger surrounding culture of its more individually detailed populace.

One of the most well-known and frequently sited hardships faced by Spielberg and his crew on the set of Jaws is without a doubt the difficulty presented by the mechanical shark itself. During the film’s shoot, the shark proved cumbersome to use for any extended period of time, and is often derided by viewers to this day for looking fake and ostensibly ridiculous when it finally arrives on screen. For some, Jaws’ shark is the be all end all barometer by which the film’s success may be measured, the prop used more important than the terror which it at times suggests and provokes. More unnatural than some of the hammy acting delivered by a few of the film’s supporting players is the shark itself, the rubbery veneer of Spielberg’s great white a facet of movie magic that is never quiet magical enough for a select cadre of viewers. In a film that is meant to be frightening, Spielberg’s Jaws visually lends itself to camp, with the director himself often making mention of the lack of special effects used in the film’s final cut when compared to his own desire for more visual terrors on the high sea.

And yet much of what makes Spielberg’s 1975 feature a classic still worthy of study comes in its minimal usage of the film’s mechanical beast. Up until the final act of the film, the viewer’s intimacy with the film’s titular menace is entirely implied, a terror lurking just out of frame, but always front and center in the mind’s eye. Over the course of the film’s two hour run time, the great white shark begins to take on a spectral ethereality, his aura infecting every frame, shot, and sequence despite being entirely absent most of the time. It’s easy to make light of the shoddy special effects used to make the big rubber thing come to life by film’s end, but the unreality of the film’s central terror feels beside the point when Quint begins to scream amid the blood and gore of his own innards. Whether or not we entirely believe the shark finally presented to us as being a terror worthy of the film’s narrative, you’d be hard pressed to find a viewer who doesn’t empathetically identify with Roy Scheider’s police chief Brody and his fear of the water by film’s end, as the camaraderie established between the film’s central protagonists provides the real emotional crux of the film’s drama and turmoil.

Forty years on, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is still a seminal classic of modern American moviemaking, as thrilling as it is dramatically compelling. Over the years, the familial drama of Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody is the singular aspect of the film’s narrative that continues to resonant, the relevance of wanting to protect and provide for the ones you love the film’s true source of unease and tension. In a film whose poster supports and promises “The terrifying motion picture from the terrifying No. 1 bestseller,” and depicts the great white front and center, Spielberg’s directorial debut is more of a subtle drama that works on our most deeply held human emotions, with the connections developed between the film’s characters  being of true central importance. Which is not to say that the film is entirely un-terrifying, but rather that the terrors that it holds are more nuanced and complicated than the more visceral thrills advertised by the pop art of the film’s iconic poster. It’s been a long time since Jaws first made a splash in the waters of the American silver screen, and yet we’re all still afraid to go in the water, which is a legacy that Spielberg can proudly enjoy on the fortieth anniversary of Jaws this summer.

Jaws is available to own on Blu-Ray and DVD, and is one of My Favorite Movies.